The case of the lost quadrant

Movie studios obsessively chase every demographic sector. But they still neglect their fastest-growing quadrant: filmgoers over the age of 50.

Is Hollywood ready to make a sequel called “Not Too Fast and Furious”? Or one called “Win a Date With George Hamilton”?

These questions are prompted by the revelation that, even as overall ticket sales continue to sag, the filmgoing audience age 50 and older climbed 20% last year.

Consider the implications of this statistic: While the kids each year become increasingly obsessed with their videogames and cell phones, their parents seem to be rediscovering the movie habit. What would happen if Hollywood actually bothered to make some movies for them!

“The human desire to be entertained is ageless,” observed Jack Valenti, who uncovered this data and who himself is definitely in the 50-plus category.

Movie marketers, to be sure, endlessly talk about the teen quadrant and turn out a steady diet of product for the young female quadrant. But I’ll be damned if I’ve ever heard an ad executive boast that he was reaching the geriatric quadrant.

Irked by this indifference, the ever-aggressive AARP has started giving an annual “Movies for Grownups” award, calling it the La Chaise d’Or trophy. “Is there a flicker of life after 50? You bet your sprockets there is,” proclaims the AARP.

Not surprisingly, this year’s AARP awards went to Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” with a runner-up nod to “A Mighty Wind” “for reminding us that our eccentricities can actually sweeten with age.”

Eager to remind us of its own eccentricities, the AARP also cited “Gigli” as winner of “the Dustin Hoffman/Warren Beatty Award of Gratitude for finally making the world forget ‘Ishtar.’ ”

While I’m proud of these retired folk for even remembering “Ishtar,” I’m not advocating that the studios turn over their decisionmaking machinery to them. Suddenly we might find releases such as “The World According to AARP.” And the sequel to “Something’s Gotta Give” might be titled “Actually, It Just Gave Out.”

On the other hand, the imminent onslaught of summer movies reminds us of the scarcity of fare aimed at mature filmgoers.

I just don’t see the over-50 crowd lining up for “Hellboy,” even though the critic for CNN Headline News is quoted as saying that it’s “something with true heart and emotion.” “Scooby-Doo 2” and “Walking Tall” do not provide much backup relief.

The principal reason, of course, is that the over-50 crowd constitutes a tougher “sell” than kids. Adults want some evidence that a new film warrants their attention, like solid reviews from reputable critics.

Kids can be energized by a fusillade of hyped-up TV commercials; adults are willing to wait for positive word of mouth, even if that means — horror of horrors — missing the first weekend.

Nonetheless, the harsh reality is that Hollywood needs its codgers — desperately. Overall ticket sales were down 4% in the U.S. last year and down 5% overseas, and that trend is likely to continue.

The major distributors had to spend 28% more on marketing costs in 2003 alone to attract this dwindling audience, some 39% of that on TV. Significantly over 60% of moviegoing households also are hooked up to the Internet, which accounts for a key source of distraction.

In unveiling his data, Valenti noted that the most frequent moviegoers are still those in the 16-20 age group, who see more than one film each month.

That’s why the studios would do well to ponder the over-50 crowd and make some movies designed to increase their patronage. Suddenly “Not Too Fast and Furious” begins to sound like a tangible idea.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this article.)

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